Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The right way to do a job - trying to build empathy for Kim Davis

I know that having empathy for a person and agreeing with a person are different. If I disagree with someone, though, it's hard to build empathy for them.

As an example, right now, if you and I were to run into each other at the grocery store we might start talking about the news. We might discuss Kim Davis, elected County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, and how she went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples. Ms. Davis has said that she did it because it's now legal to marry in the U.S. if you are gay, and that issuing licenses to gay couples conflicts with her religion.

I believe strongly that civil marriage should be legal between any two people regardless of their sexual orientation, and so I celebrated when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of this. As a result, I firmly agree with the local Kentucky residents who want to get married. I feel frustration for the men and women who were trying to get married and couldn't get licenses until Ms. Davis went to jail a few days ago.

I feel anger at this woman. I think, why is she choosing to use her position of power to cause disruption in the lives of these people?


I also believe strongly in keeping my ethics and my work tied together. I had a summer job teaching at a local college many years ago, for Calculus III. This was a difficult class for undergrads; and it was made more difficult because of the intense schedule (we were meeting for 3 hours a day, 3 days a week for 6 weeks). It didn't surprise me that many of the students were unable to learn the subject that quickly, and out of a class of 12; 4 of them were failing out. I was in my office grading papers one day, when there was a knock at the door. I was expecting a student, so was surprised to see an older man I didn't know walk in.

He introduced himself as the Dean of the Chemistry department. He then said that one of my failing students was trying to graduate, and that all they needed was this one class. Could I see any way that they could pass? I told him that, at this point, it would be really hard; they had already failed every weekly test, and the midterm exam, with grades below 50 percent. I said, "If they turn themselves around and get a high score on the final exam, they can pass. " He then asked me, "Could you pass them anyway, even if they fail the final?"

I was floored that he asked me to do this. I looked at him, and repeated, "Only if they get a high score on the final exam." He looked at me and said, "I know you'll do the right thing. Think about it, and when it comes time to submit grades, pass him. " Then he shook my hand and walked out. After he left I sat there for a few minutes; not sure of what to do.

This was horrible! My job is to teach students, and the grades are supposed to reflect that they've learned or not learned the material. I had heard about students trading favors for grades, and I had caught students cheating. This was completely different; this was one teacher asking another to change a student's grade! I was mortified that he would ask; but I wasn't sure what I could do. I thought, well, he's a Dean and I'm just an adjunct professor, I'm pretty sure I have to do what he tells me to do. Also, although this was a summer job I thought I was going to end up teaching for the rest of my life. I was hoping to get a letter of recommendation from this school, and I was worried about what would happen if I did flunk the student. Then I thought, let me see how this kid does on his final exam. I don't need to decide until then.

In the end, the student got only one question right out of ten on the final exam, and I needed to fail him. I decided that it wouldn't be right not to, it wouldn't be fair to the other kids who worked harder to earn their grade. I remember the strong feeling of decisiveness that came over me as I entered his grade and handed it in.

After I submitted the grades, I went to the Dean of the Math Department (my boss) and told him what had happened. He agreed that it was improper, but he didn't say to me if he was going to alert anyone else. I didn't ask for the recommendation letter. Since I didn't end up going into a teaching career, I've never heard from any of them again.

It felt really good standing up for what I felt was right, and doing my job the way I thought it ought to be done.


I know that teaching a class is very different from being elected Deputy Clerk of a County; but in many ways they are similar. We're both acting based on what we know and believe to be the right way of doing things; and we're both in positions of power; we're making decisions that affect other people's lives.

So when I think about Ms. Kim Davis, I think that her job is to issue marriage licenses, and to determine who is eligible for a license. If I was in her position, I can imagine that maybe she doesn't agree with her bosses definition of eligible (in this case, the government's definition). If I was her, maybe I wouldn't issue a license until I thought about what I was doing, and decided if I agreed or disagreed with it. Maybe I would be trying to talk to my boss, in this case, the government and the people who elected me. Maybe I would be talking with others, friends and family, to see what they would do.

I disagree with her, and I have empathy for her.